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Ben Smith & eneloop

Minimalist by instinct

I’ve always been a bit of a minimalist by instinct. Not necessarily in the artistic sense but in a more general, ‘lifestyle’ way: I eschew stuff, kit, gear, equipment, belongings, anything at all that is superfluous to requirements. This tendency has become stronger over time, so that the older I get the less stuff I want and the more stripped back everything has to be. Something ingrained into my very core compels me - and I almost don’t have a conscious say in this - to pare things down to the absolute basics, as if any uneccessary clutter surrounding me will manifest itself as uneccessary clutter inside my poor overtaxed brain. This means that what I’m really good at is getting rid of everything non-essential and getting the most out of the least possible. Since this philosophy extends to all aspects of my life, it should come as no surprise that I also apply it to my photography and one of the benefits of this tendency is that it has saved me a fortune over the years because I’ve never been one for buying equipment. What you see in the picture is pretty much my entire kit and has been for many years.

Meanwhile, I know friends and colleagues who have been acquiring cameras and other assorted gear over several decades but have never been able to bring themselves to sell any of it. I don’t know where they keep this stuff but can only imagine there is a room or store cupboard in their home or studio packed to the rafters with camera equipment that hasn’t seen daylight in years. In contrast, I can’t stand to keep hold of anything that I don’t absolutely need. Naturally, I’ve owned numerous cameras over nearly three decades as a photographer, but once the decision is made to try a different one, I see no reason to keep hold of the one it will replace. It must be sold and it must be sold immediately.

This admittedly somewhat obsessive behaviour extends to lighting equipment too. Despite being someone who has spent many years shooting portraits for a living I do not own a set of studio flashes, preferring, like many other photographers, to rent these as and when needed so I can return them as soon as the job is done. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is for someone with my particular brand of OCD to walk out of the rental place, having ditched this heavy, cumbersome kit, with nothing but my trusty camera bag containing the same stripped down equipment list (see pic) as I have used for twenty odd years.

The other reason I have eschewed the purchase of lighting is because among that small collection of items I carry is a flashgun, powered, of course, by a set of eneloop pro AA rechargeable batteries. This is the single most indespensible piece of kit one can possibly own aside from a good camera body and fixed focal length lens. It is small, light and compact, yet powerful enough to effectively deal with a staggering range of photographic lighting situations. There is no heavy power pack to lug around nor any need for a mains outlet to plug in to (not an easy thing to find on the beach or in a field or in the desert), and, make no mistake, you can light a portrait very successfully, as I have done many times, with a single flashgun on a stand and some kind of modifier such as a small softbox in front of it - which is why there are numerous lighting accessories available for just such an application, not to mention numerous websites dedicated to this technique. Add a second flashgun, stand and lightbox and you have a fully portable, use anywhere lighting set-up that will do the job perfectly in the vast majority of cases.

Even just with one flashgun handheld off the camera, using a TTL cable so that the flash and camera can communicate, amazing results can be obtained, whether being used as fill-flash in harsh sunlight or bounced off a wall or ceiling to augment the ambient light in an otherwise dingy interior. Need something to soften the light? Buy a pack of cigarette papers and stick one to the front of the flashgun as an ad hoc diffuser. Add another one on top to increase the effect. And with the eneloop pro’s powering the thing - as they have in my case for the past six years or so - you will fill several high capacity memory cards with images long before your flashgun runs out of juice. At which point, you will obviously have a fully-charged spare set of eneloops on hand.

As well as the attraction of portability and paired-down simplicity, this approach has another much more important function: it allows the photographer to focus on what really matters, which is using the full extent of her skill and creativity to produce a compelling image without the distraction of unecessary gear getting in the way.